A Historical Perspective: by Norman L. Hosey
In 1979 Juneteenth (19th of June) was initially recognized as an official state holiday in Texas. Juneteenth commemorates freedom for African Americans after 250 years of slavery, America’s most shameful confession. Today, over 150 years after emancipation, the effect of slavery continues to make a negative unconscious impact. Historical perceptions have encouraged biased opinions on social issues. This creates cultural tensions that lead to institutional racism, which has been enormously ignored. Structural blindness has allowed a false sense of equality, without acknowledging the horrendous degradations of African Americans past. A sincere conscious effort to share an accurate historical perspective on slavery’s embarrassing period in our history and its devastation needs to be revealed.
Africa is the second largest continent and it is naturally endowed with an abundance of gold, diamonds, iron, copper and oil. African tribes have been at war with each other for thousands of years seeking dominance. Captured tribes stayed with their families but worked as slaves mainly in farming and mining. Slavery in Africa was not utilized primarily for production of goods for wealth. Slavery had already existed in Africa several centuries before the United States was a nation, but it never carried none of the racial connotations that later developed in the New World.
Once African Kings in the west central area of Africa became involved in the European Slave Trade, the inhumane treatment of slaves became fashionable. African Kings engaging in the slave trade believed they were exploiting the Europeans by selling and trading them unwanted captives from rival tribes. The dominant African tribes were going to empower themselves even more by trading slaves for better weapons from the Europeans. This made it easier to expand their kingdom while defending against other tribes.
African slaves now were separated from their families against their will; transported away from their homelands like animals in an incredibly dehumanizing way. Captive slaves were placed in forts that served temporarily as prisons, while the slave ships waited ashore. The slaves were loaded on the ships shackled together in pairs by their hands and feet. They had no room to move about, and no freedom to exercise their bodies even in the slightest. The seating area for each slave was approximately three feet long and two feet wide.
These ships were overloaded with slaves allowing for a certain amount of them not to survive the unbearable month-long journey across the Atlantic Ocean. One slave in every seven never made it, partially because of the living conditions and the tremendous amount of suicide deaths. The slaves that survived suffered physically and psychologically from fatigue, hunger, and the adaptation to strange landscapes with unfamiliar languages.
The central west region where these slaves were exported from occupied only about 20 percent of the total land of Africa. The Europeans began to divide the west area of Africa into commodity zones denoted by such names as the Grain Coast, Gold Coast, Ivory Coast and Slave Coast. Revolutionary improvements in the quality of navigation achieved by Portuguese seamen allowed Portugal to be the first European country to engage in the African slave trade. The Dutch, French and English companies took over during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The African slave trade became a huge business, and the Europeans sold these slaves to other countries. A good deal of the so-called wars in central west Africa were nothing but slave raids intending to satisfy the European demand for slaves. The slave trades were well organized, and the African tribal leaders had total control. They charged the Europeans rent for having their ships docked, and even played them against each other for the best deals. If a European ship appeared to be in a major rush, the Africans would increase their prices.
During what is called the ‘Middle Passage’ an estimated nine million slaves were exported across the Atlantic Ocean between the 16th and 19th centuries. The Atlantic Slave Trade remains the largest and longest lasting deportation in history. Historians have documented more than 27,000 slave voyages from Africa to the Americas; most of these African slaves were sent to South America, Latin America and Mexico. Only 20 percent of these slaves ended up in the United States. Initially slaves were not transported directly from Africa to the United States. They were first taken to Cuba, Haiti and Jamaica to be seasoned (given time to mend physically, regain their strength and taught how to cooperate).
The first slaves in the US arrived in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. They were treated as indentured servants. Years later between 1670 and 1700, the number of slaves in Virginia rose from 2,200 to 6,000. After realizing how profitable slaves in the Southern tobacco and cotton fields were, slavery in the US became known as the ‘Peculiar Institution’. Colonist became eager for material gains, and they imported hundreds of thousands of slaves to do labor in their fields. After the invention of the cotton gin there was a phenomenal increase in the demand for slaves in the southern region of the US. African slaves were being sold like cattle in public auctions, and by law they were considered property. The best example of this is when a female slave was raped by a Caucasian male, he was charged with trespassing and not rape. Slaves lost their identity, family, and were stripped of their human rights.
Ownership was so expensive that only 17 percent of Americans owned slaves. Eight of the first twelve American Presidents were slaveholders. Thomas Jefferson, who proclaimed in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”, owned more that 250 slaves. George Washington, American’s number one founding father and first president was a slave owner. The institution of slavery began to dominate the political and economic thinking of the entire South; it also shaped its social pattern. Plantation owners in the South were becoming millionaires with slave labor, while Northerners were not benefitting nearly as much. The South utilized the slaves more than the North, because it was more of an agricultural area. The warmer weather also allowed the slaves to work in the fields ten to eleven months out of the year. The slaves worked 10-12 hours per day, six days a week. They were given off every Sunday and on Christmas day. They had slave codes to follow for example: no alcohol, no beating of drums, no meeting of too many slaves together without a Caucasian present. Preachers were the exception, but on most plantations, there was absolutely no learning to read or write. Many of the slave revolts that occurred later were led by preachers.
After a ten-year war with Spain, Mexico gained its independence in 1821. The new national government in Mexico did not depend on slave labor for its economic livelihood, and slavery was abolished throughout the nation. Mexico offered free Blacks full citizenship rights, land ownership and other privileges denied to them in the US. Following old Spanish colonization policies, Mexico began to allow Americans to set up colonies in Tejas. They wanted to increase the population of the isolated provenience, promote economic growth development and better protect existing settlements from raids by hostile Native Americans.
In 1821 the Mexican government granted a colony to Moses Austin from Missouri, and this set the stage for a massive migration of White settlers into Tejas. American settlers had agreed to follow Mexico’s law, and eventually become Roman Catholic. Despite Mexico’s law against slavery, many of the White settlers intended to establish plantations with slave labor in Tejas. The Mexican government reported about 5,000 slaves in Tejas. In 1835 war broke out, and in 1836 Texas won its independence from Mexico. Sam Houston was the first president of the Republic of Texas. On December 29, 1845 Texas entered the Union as the twenty-eight state, and it entered as a Slave state.
The United States went to war with Mexico in 1846, following a border dispute. The defeat of Mexico significantly expanded the territory of the US, and further strengthened the position of White slave holder in Texas. The free-Black population which reported only 397 in 1850, only had a mere 355 free-Blacks a decade later. White Texans had placed free-Blacks on notice that they did not welcome them and would go to considerable length to prevent the growth of a sizable free-Black community. The total Texas population almost tripled in the decade between 1850 and 1860 as it increased to 604,215. The number of African slaves in Texas grew at a faster rate than any other segment of the population from 58,161 in 1850 to 182,566 in 1860. Over 75% of the Texas population did not own slaves. However, those Texans who did own slaves controlled about 65% of the entire wealth of the state, and totally dominated the politics. Slaves were also looked down on and disrespected by the citizens who did not own slaves.
In November 1860, Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States. Before he could even take office, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union; shortly afterwards other southern states followed. Texas Governor Sam Houston strongly opposed secession from the Union. However, the president of the confederacy Jefferson Davis had a major influence on wealthy slave owners in Texas; he was willing to fight to maintain profitable cotton plantations. President Lincoln offered to send enough federal troops to force Texas to remain in the Union, but Governor Sam Houston refused his offer.
On February 23, 1861 Texans voted in Austin to join the Confederacy. Only eight delegates voted again secession, while 166 supported secession. On March 15, 1861 George W. Chilton a member of the secession committee arrived in Austin to allow Governor Sam Houston the opportunity to take an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy. Governor Houston refused to take the oath; he was replaced by Lieutenant Governor Edward Clark. A month later the Civil War started, and Texas fought with the Confederacy against the Union.
One of the main reasons for the Civil War was to determine whether the United States would be an agricultural or industrial nation. Many people think it was for the freedom of the slaves; however, it was more for economic and political reasons. Many of the early Civil War battles occurred in the east, and later in the border states such as Kentucky and Tennessee. On but a few occasions did Union troops occupy territory in Texas, except in the El Paso area. Texas appeared to be removed from the destruction of life, and the devastation that other southern plantation owners faced. Texans were however upset about the State tax levied by the Confederacy which ended totaling up over $37 million.
For the first year and a half of the war, the Confederacy was defeating the Union. Fredrick Douglas was the main Black leader who pressed President Lincoln to allow black people to fight with the Union forces, in the name of freeing themselves from slavery. In January 1863 President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves that were in the Southern states that seceded from the Union. Freeing the slaves was a major turn in the war for the Union, because thousands of these now-free slaves became union solders who helped to win the war.
The Union promised each Black recruit of which there was no shortage, $10.00 a month in regular Army pay, provisions, and certificates of freedom for the enlistee and his family. Although Black recruits received $3.00 a month less than White enlistees, Blacks took tremendous pride in serving their country. Initially Black soldiers were segregated from Whites in the Union Army. In July 1863, the Black regiment fought alongside Whites for the first time at Colvin Creek; in present-day Oklahoma where they turned back Confederate troops.
The Civil War was the worst war in American history, and a total of over 600,000 people lost their lives. More than 200,000 Black men put on the Union uniform to fight, and over 30,000 Black soldiers lost their lives. The last battle of the Civil War was fought at Palmetto Ranch near Brownsville, Texas on May 13, 1865. On June 19, 1865 Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas with 1800 Federal troops to begin the Union occupation of Texas. General Granger stood on the balcony of Ashton Villa and read General order Number Three: The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States that all slaves are free. Later, Federal troops went from town to town in Texas reading this proclamation.
Juneteenth is celebrated every year on the 19th of June giving significant consideration to the achievements, triumphs, and tragedies of African Americans. Our critical understanding of who we are as a nation depends upon our understanding of slavery. An increased awareness of our true history allows us to understand stereotypical behaviors that certain people have created, to treat African Americans with a lack of sensitivity. However, we need not conform to any lower standards of treatment today, because of the false psychological make-up that was placed on African Americans centuries ago. Our ancestors such as Harriet Tubman threw off their identity as slaves, and with self-determination worked together as a courageous group of people in search of freedom.
An increased awareness about African Americans and their history, allows one to speak out about ignorant misconception pertaining to their race. There are several races of people who would not have survived had they began as African Americans did in America. It is virtually impossible to speak out about slavery with a pleasant sense of accomplishment. However, African Americans have made more progress in education, economics, politics and entertainment than any race the past century. This fact alone should create a personal enhancement to the pride and dignity that African Americans have for themselves, while removing the stigma of being a marginalized race in America. A lack of education in African American history enables the disregard of honor and respect owed to our ancestors. The lack of factual historic knowledge being shared among all races allows many to be unaware of the monumental accomplishments African Americans have contributed to this county.